ALBANY, N.Y. -- Maybe the only middle linebacker capable of successfully slowing Tiki Barber, as he tries to follow a career season with another monster campaign in 2006, is an indefatigable and rarely outrun tackling machine who wears a flowing robe instead of shoulder pads, sports a white beard and totes around a scythe.
And, make no mistake, Barber, who turned 31 in April, hears the footsteps.
"There is probably more sense of urgency for me now, as I approach the season, because I know there isn't a lot of time left for me to be ultimately successful, and win a Super Bowl," said Barber, who despite getting better with age, understands the ravages of 10 seasons of pounding. "It's not a big window, ever, for a player or a team in this league. For me, I'd say two years, and that's probably it. I'll be 33 then and well, you know."
Uh-huh. Probably hosting a television or radio show and, given Barber's curiosity for real-world matters, not necessarily football-related. Maybe running his own business. Or, perhaps, running for public office. Whatever the future holds, it will almost certainly involve running because, his wide-ranging and diverse interests aside, running is still what Tiki Barber does best.
And few NFL players, especially over the last four seasons, have done it much better.
A solid, all-around back early in his career, when coaches often fretted that his 5-foot-10, 200-pound frame might not permit him to sustain an every-down workload, Barber has emerged as a tremendous back since the start of the 2002 season. In a four-year stretch, he has rushed for 5,981 yards, registering more than 1,200 yards in each of those seasons, and establishing a franchise record with 1,860 yards in 2005. Barber has also added 244 catches for 2,166 yards in that four-year span.
The quarter horse has, indeed, grown into a workhorse. In his first five NFL seasons, Barber averaged 125.8 carries and 182.6 touches per year. Over the last four seasons, the averages have increased exponentially, to 315.3 rushing attempts and 376.3 touches from scrimmage. The result: Since 2002, only three backs have logged more carries than the mighty mite Barber and just two players -- Seattle's Shaun Alexander and San Diego's LaDainian Tomlinson -- have rushed for more yards. In the Giants' fabled history, Barber ranks first in rushing yards (8,787), total yards (15,232) and 100-yard rushing games (30), and is second in pass receptions (528).
"And I would bet that if you told most people those [accomplishments], they wouldn't believe them," said Giants strongside linebacker LaVar Arrington, who as a star on the Washington Redskins' defense spent plenty of afternoons chasing Barber around the field. "The guy is a great player. Period. But it's taken awhile for people to discover that and to appreciate him. There are probably people out there who still think, like, 'Oh, yeah, Tiki Barber, that little third-down back, right?' Yeah, right. That man can do it all."
At some point, a least a few more seasons down the road, Barber probably will.
One of the NFL's most articulate players, a man who is conversant on myriad topics and whose persona is more than just a contrived public relations veneer, Barber has already been deluged with opportunities for his post-football career. It hasn't hurt that he has played in the media capital of the world, but chances are that, no matter the NFL precinct, Barber would have emerged as a kind of renaissance man.
His interests are as broad in scope as his reading list. His current project is "The Devil in the White City," the Erik Larson historical piece/murder mystery with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair as its backdrop. But in recent weeks, Barber has devoured several ponderous books on Korea -- his wife, Ginny, is Amerasian, and his in-laws are from Korea -- and how communism leveled the once-privileged there. It's reflective not only of Barber's general penchant for widening his personal horizons, but also of his basic curiosity.
Such an ecumenical and eclectic approach will set Barber up nicely for the future. He is more concerned, though, about the present as the Giants prepare to defend their NFC East championship. Especially on the offensive side, general manager Ernie Accorsi and coach Tom Coughlin have assembled a roster that could carry the Giants deep into the playoffs.
The schedule, some skeptics insist, might be too difficult for New York to repeat the 11-5 mark it fashioned in 2005. But Barber is confident that if the Giants play up to their potential, they can vie for a Super Bowl title. And with the tailback's biological clock moving inexorably forward -- perhaps he should be renamed Tick-Tock Barber -- he knows he won't get many more chances.
Barber is as cognizant of time, it seems, as a railroad conductor. And that's because he comprehends the reality of being a running back on the wrong side of 30. There is a kind of timeline of demarcation that dogs all running backs, and while Barber's legs might be younger than his 31 years because of the manner in which he was utilized earlier in his career, the last four seasons have rubbed some tread off the tires.
He beat the odds in 2005, rushing for 1,860 yards at age 30, but Barber knows the numbers "3" and "0" typically augur a downturn in production. He cited New York Jets counterpart Curtis Martin, who could be forced into retirement after a brilliant career because of lingering knee problems, as an example of a player who quickly spiraled. And Barber is correct in his assessment, recent history indicates, that the decline in production for tailbacks often isn't a gradual one.
"It's a position where, one day or one play, and you can start into that steep decline," Barber said. "You don't see running backs go from 1,800 yards to maybe 1,400, then 1,000, or whatever. It's like 1,800 yards and then 700 or so. It happens fast. The wall is out there and, no matter how good you are, it's just waiting for you. I don't think I'm there yet, but it's coming, and I know it. This year, next year, and then it's going to be there, waiting for me to run into it."
Which is why, while Barber plots his football afterlife, he still manages to deflect peripheral distractions and focus on the task at hand.
It is different, Barber acknowledged, not having Giants co-owners Wellington Mara and Bob Tisch at camp this summer. Both men passed away during the 2005 season, within three weeks of each other, and that was a particularly emotional time for Barber, who was close to both men, but especially to Mara. Barber said he's proud of having registered his finest season in a year when the franchise and ownership perhaps needed it most.
He will be even prouder, though, if he can help deliver a Super Bowl to this proud and storied franchise.
"From an individual and personal standpoint, it would mean so much to me, really," Barber said. "And I need to do it soon, because the clock is ticking."
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.